Willa: Hello everyone. Part 3 of the series has just been published! This essay takes a deep dive into the allegations against Michael Jackson, from the Chandler allegations in 1993 through the Leaving Neverland documentary in 2019. It also places these allegations within a historical context. For decades, false allegations of sexual assault and abuse have been used to silence some of America’s most successful and outspoken black men, and this essay places Jackson squarely within that tradition. Here’s a link to Part 3.
Again, much of this information will be familiar to long-time readers. In fact, many of you know a lot more about this than I do. Thank you sincerely for sharing your ideas and knowledge so generously! I have tried to research this essay as thoroughly and carefully as I could. However, if anything I have written is incorrect, please let me know.
I hope you all are staying healthy and happy.
Willa: Hello friends. I wanted to let you know that Part 2 of the series has just been published! This essay looks at some of Jackson’s important early work, including Thriller, to discover how he addressed and to some extent neutralized white fears of black men. It also looks at the apparent changing color of his skin, one of his most powerful and most transgressive works of art. Here’s a link.
Again, many of these ideas will be familiar to long-time readers. I want to thank you again for helping to develop my thinking on these topics by sharing insights and information and by encouraging – and sometimes challenging – my ponderings. For example, my thoughts on his struggles with vitiligo, and how that eventually evolved into an important element of his art, have become much more nuanced because of our discussions.
I hope you all are healthy and doing well.
Willa: This week I am so happy to be joined once again by our longtime friend, Joe Vogel. Or actually, I should say Dr. Joe Vogel – you’ve accomplished a lot since the last time we talked with you! What all have you been up to, Joe?
Joe: Hi Willa. It’s great to talk again. I’ve been so busy lately, but every time I check in with Dancing With the Elephant some great new discussion is going on. You and Joie do such a fantastic job of exploring different facets of Michael Jackson’s creative work and life.
As far as what I’ve been up to … As you noted, I recently finished my PhD at the University of Rochester. I’m now working on a book on James Baldwin that focuses on his cultural and media criticism in the 1980s.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I knew you frequently posted things about James Baldwin on your blog, but I didn’t realize you were writing a book about him.
Joe: Yes, it’s an outgrowth of one of my dissertation chapters. Once I began really digging into Baldwin’s work, I was amazed by his prescience. His work is still so relevant to the world we live in today.
I’ve also written a few new MJ-related things, some of which have already been published (an entry on Thriller for the Library of Congress and the liner notes for Xscape), and some of which will be published in the near future (an entry on Michael Jackson for Scribner’s encyclopedia, America in the World, 1776-present, and the article we will be discussing today, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White,” which just recently came out in the Journal of Popular Music Studies).
Willa: And I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about it. There are so many aspects of your article that fascinated or surprised me. For example, you see Black or White as pushing back against a long history of racism in the film industry, and you begin your article by reviewing some of that history – and to be honest, I was shocked by it.
As you point out, Hollywood’s first film, as we think of films today, was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it was originally titled The Clansman. As you say in your article,
It ushered in a new art form – the motion picture – that transformed the entertainment industry. … Birth became the most profitable film of its time – and possibly of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the first film to cost over $100 thousand dollars to make, the first to have a musical score, the first to be shown at the White House, the first to be viewed by the Supreme Court and members of congress, and the first to be viewed by millions of ordinary Americans. It was America’s original blockbuster.
So Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on America’s new film industry – in fact, it helped shape our ideas about what a film is or should be – but it also helped shape popular notions of race. And you see Black or White as taking on both of these issues, right? – as challenging the dual-headed hydra of racism and the film industry in the US?
Joe: Exactly. Ralph Ellison described Birth of a Nation as having “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown.” It was hugely powerful and influential, not just in the South, but in the North, and in Los Angeles, where it premiered to a standing ovation.
Willa: Yes, in fact the turning point of the film is the murder of a black man accused of attempting to rape a white women, and the fear of miscegenation and black men as “bestial rapists” runs throughout it, from beginning to end. For example, the film ends with the double wedding of two white couples – a brother and sister from the North marry a brother and sister from the South – and what unites them, what unites whites from the North and South after the bitterness of the Civil War, is fear of black men.
Joe: Michael Jackson was so knowledgeable about the history of film that I just found it interesting that, given his biggest platform in 1991, an estimated 500 million viewers around the world, he decides to use this fledgling new medium – the short music film, a medium he pioneered as much as D.W. Griffith did the long motion picture – to challenge and replace Griffith’s mythology about black masculinity and race more broadly.
Willa: Yes, as you write in your article,
D.W. Griffith himself acknowledged that one crucial purpose of the film “was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”
As you go on to write, Griffith does this by exaggerating racial differences and creating “a world of stark contrasts.” As you point out,
Black characters are mostly whites in blackface, making them appear darker and more uniformly black than the diverse range of skin tones of actual African-Americans. They are also more often presented in shadows with manic and animalistic expressions. The white protagonists, meanwhile, possess a glowing, radiant aura that highlights their whiteness and inherent nobility.
Michael Jackson challenges this “world of stark contrasts” throughout his short film by offering a much more complex and integrative view of humanity, and this challenge begins with the ironic title, Black or White. There is very little in Black or White that is either all black or all white.
Joe: Exactly. Throughout the song and video he is constantly complicating our understandings of these categories, and carefully juxtaposing or balancing tensions. It undercuts the central premise of Griffith’s film: the fallacy of racial purity (and by extension, white supremacy).
Willa: Oh, I agree. For example, while Griffith presents an almost cartoonish depiction of racial differences by using white actors in blackface, Michael Jackson gives us African tribesmen whose faces have been painted with both black and white facepaint, so their faces are a collage of black and white. This is an important scene – it’s when the music of Black or White begins, and it’s when Michael Jackson makes his first appearance in the film. It seems significant to me that when we first see him, he’s dancing with these men. So his face, which complicates and resists simplistic definitions of race, is first seen amid these tribesmen, whose faces are works of art combining black and white in creative ways.
Later, there’s the famous morphing sequence, where the face of an American Indian man morphs into the face of a black woman, then a white woman, then a black man, then an East Indian woman, and so on. To me both of these scenes – the black-and-white painted faces of the tribesmen and the morphing faces sequence – are an artistic expression of “the fallacy of racial purity,” as you just said.
Biologically, there’s no such thing as race – there is no genetic binary with “black” on one side and “white” on the other. It’s a cultural concept rather than a biological reality. Humanity is a vast spectrum of physical characteristics – skin tones, facial features, hair types – and we’ve had ideas about racial divisions artificially imposed onto us. As you say in your article,
“Being a color,” Jackson suggests, is not a universal essence; it is an identity fashioned through imagination, history, narrative, and myth; it is a trope and a positioning within concentric communities.
That’s such an important point, I think, and part of what Michael Jackson is suggesting in these two scenes of the tribesmen and the morphing faces. The importance of these two scenes is emphasized by their strategic placement in the film – they bookend the central section of Black or White. It seems to me that Black or White consists of three sections: the prologue in suburbia before the music begins, the main part where the song is played, and the epilogue or “panther dance” after the music ends. And it’s significant, I think, that the main part begins with the tribesmen and ends with the morphing faces.
Joe: These are great observations. And, of course, all of this new, complex racial storytelling is being relayed, presumably, for a traditional white suburban family. The prologue, as you describe it, is about white insularity and dysfunction, particularly between the father and son. The white patriarch (played by George Wendt) is angry, on the surface, because his son (played by Macaulay Culkin) is playing music too loud.
But the point Michael Jackson is making here seems to go much deeper. The rage from the father is about ignorance. He doesn’t understand his son, or his son’s music, or his son’s heroes. His worldview is narrow, provincial, outdated – which is why his son literally blasts him out of the house, and why the father lands, recliner and all, in Africa, the cradle of civilization, where his “re-education” begins.
Willa: Yes, and significantly, one of his son’s heroes is Michael Jackson – his father knocks his poster down when he storms into his son’s room. There’s a similar scene at the very end of the video, as you point out in your article, with Homer Simpson grabbing the remote and turning off the TV, where his son Bart has been watching Black or White – specifically, the panther dance. So the video is framed by these two scenes of an angry, repressive, white father trying to limit his son’s exposure to popular culture – specifically, pop culture as mediated by a black artist, Michael Jackson.
This seems to be an accurate reflection of the times since, as you say in your article, Black or White was released at a time of intense white male anger. Advances in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights “eroded male dominance in the home and workplace,” as you say, and led to the rise of a predominantly white “men’s movement.” I thought it was very interesting that the most popular book of 1991, the year Black or White was released, was Robert Bly’s Iron John, which as you point out was “a book that sought to make sense of and rehabilitate broken men by restoring their inner ‘wildman’ or ‘warrior within.’”
I remember how popular Bly’s book and the “men’s movement” was back then. Men would gather in the woods to build huge bonfires and bang on drums and shed the supposedly emasculating influence of civilization. I hadn’t thought about all that in terms of Michael Jackson before, but it’s another fascinating historical context for interpreting Black or White – especially the scene you’re talking about, Joe, where a suburban man sitting in a recliner is blasted back to Africa and then sees Michael Jackson dancing with tribesmen.
In some ways, this seems to be exactly what Bly was proposing – for men to go back to their primal origins and reconnect with the “warrior within.” But Michael Jackson deviates from Bly’s script by dancing with Thai women, and then a group of Plains Indians, including a little girl. Next he dances with an East Indian woman and a group of Russian men. So Michael Jackson’s message seems very different than Bly’s.
Joe: Right. Part of what makes Bly’s project misguided, in my opinion, is that it assumes that there is a universal essence to all men, and by extension, a universal prescription to the so-called “masculinity crisis.” He doesn’t acknowledge difference and diversity among men, as Michael Jackson so often does. But as you say, it’s another fascinating historical context that indicates that masculinity was perceived as being in crisis.
In fact, another context I ended up cutting is the role of hip hop. So much of hip hop at the time, particularly gangsta rap, was about projecting hypermasculine power. Being a real man precluded being gay or queer or soft, or treating women with respect, or being involved in interracial relationships.
So Michael’s song and video, in this context, directly challenged the prevailing discourse in hip hop and also in hard rock/metal. While hip hop was often singled out, metal was often just as misogynistic and homophobic.
Willa: It really was.
Joe: These genres were so influential among young people in the late 80s/early 1990s. It’s no accident Michael incorporated them both into Black or White, but reimagined their “messaging.”
Willa: That’s interesting, Joe. And these contexts are important because you see Black or White not only as a critique of racism, which is how it’s usually interpreted, but also as a critique of gender – as engaging with repressive cultural narratives of what it means to be a man, specifically what it means to be a black man, and creating a “re-vision of black masculinity.” As you write in your article,
A “pattern” existed, Jackson recognized, in how black men were represented in American media. … In cinema, of course, the pattern Jackson refers to was largely introduced with Birth of a Nation.
A different but equally restrictive “pattern” was perpetuated by Bly’s “man’s movement,” and by hip hop and heavy metal as you say. And you see Black or White as directly challenging those patterns and offering a new vision, a “re-vision” as you put it, of both race and gender. Is that right?
Joe: Yes, in an interview around the time of his trial Michael Jackson spoke about the Jack Johnson story. He was keenly aware of America’s fears about black men, specifically about black male sexuality. That’s really the central fear in Birth of a Nation: the prospect of black men defiling white female purity. The director, D.W. Griffith, makes no qualms about this. As you mentioned earlier, he speaks of wanting to elicit an “abhorrence” of miscegenation and interracial marriage. This fear goes back to slavery and continues in tragedies like the deaths of Emmett Till and Yusef Hawkins. (Keep in mind, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages. By 1991, the number had risen to 48%, but that’s still less than half of America.)
So this is the mythology Michael Jackson is challenging in Black or White. From the lyric, “‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ / ‘Yes, we’re one and the same,’” to the scene in which Michael walks through a burning cross, shouting “I ain’t scared of no sheets!,” to the morphing scene, which undercuts the very notion of racial purity, to the panther coda, which, in my opinion, is one of the boldest, most defiant moments in film history – certainly in a music video.
Willa: Oh, I agree.
Joe: One of the things I find so fascinating about this moment in the short film is that he symbolically takes over as the auteur – the white director (John Landis) is dethroned. It’s an amazing moment given the history of film, and how overwhelmingly it has been dominated by white men. And the fact was, John Landis really did oppose what Michael was doing in the panther scene, as did Sony executives. Recently, an outtake surfaced on YouTube that shows a bit of this.
Michael insists that Landis is the one thinking “dirty,” not him. It’s actually pretty funny. But this film, and especially the panther segment, represent Michael Jackson’s artistic vision, his choices. He knew the risks, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. The sheer intelligence of the short film testifies to that – the black panther sneaking off the set, the complete shift in tone, lighting, setting – the juxtapositions and tensions, given what we witnessed in the “official cut.” It’s remarkable.
Willa: It really is. And thank you so much for sharing that behind-the-scenes clip! I hadn’t seen that before, but it’s very telling, isn’t it? Watching that clip, it’s obvious that John Landis really didn’t understand what Michael Jackson was doing or why it was so important. And like you, I think it’s significant that, in the video, John Landis’ role symbolically ends after the morphing sequence, and the rest of the video – the panther dance – is presented as Michael Jackson’s own.
It reminds me of Liberian Girl, a video that begins with a Hollywood-style depiction of colonial Africa, complete with missionary … but then suddenly everything shifts. We hear Malcolm-Jamal Warner (a black actor) say, “I’m afraid to open any doors around here” – and isn’t that an interesting comment? Then Whoopi Goldberg (a black actress) asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Spielberg (a white director) sitting in the director’s chair, but he’s not in control – he’s bored and waiting.
Then Rosanna Arquette (a white actress) asks Jasmine Guy (a black actress) “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” Jasmine Guy answers with, “All I know is that Michael called me. I guess when he gets here, he’ll let me know what we’re supposed to do” – implying that Michael Jackson is really the one in charge. That’s borne out at the very end of the video when we finally see him … and surprisingly, he’s in the cameraman’s chair. So he’s the one who’s been controlling the camera, and he’s the one calling the shots – not the white guy sitting in the director’s chair, glancing at his watch and waiting for someone to tell him what to do. So despite the expectations raised by its intro, Liberian Girl is not another white depiction of Afro-colonialism. It’s something else entirely. It’s about a talented young black man seizing control of what appears in millions of homes around the world, but it’s all done in such a fun, light-hearted, subtle way that no one seemed to realize what he was doing.
I think the message of the John Landis scene in Black or White is similar. John Landis may be the director, but he’s not in charge. He’s really just an employee who’s helping Michael Jackson convey his vision without understanding what that vision is. John Landis himself makes that very clear in the behind-the-scenes clip you posted, Joe. At about 1:45 in, he turns to the camera and says, “I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.” He’s completely disassociating himself from everything that appears on screen during the panther dance.
Joe: Exactly. There are quotes in my article in which he says similar things – basically, that he is a hired hand for this video. Not even out of modesty, really, but because he wants to distance himself from what Michael is doing.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too. He seems very uncomfortable with the panther dance portion of the video. And that makes sense because, as you said, that’s when “the white director (John Landis) is dethroned.” And Michael Jackson is not just defying the role of the white director but, even more importantly, the long history of Hollywood representations of black men and black culture. I think it’s very significant in this context that the climax of the panther dance, to my mind anyway, is the fall of the sign for the Royal Arms Hotel, which explodes in a spray of flying sparks. This is about black resistance to “Royal Arms” and that kind of colonial ideology, and to a film industry that is steeped in that racist, colonial worldview.
One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.
This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.
Joe: Well, I tried anyway. It’s a fascinating short film, and like so much of Michael Jackson’s work, it rewards deep dives. In fact, now having talked to you about it, there is more I would like to incorporate into my article!
Willa: Oh, I know what you mean – it takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work! I’ve been thinking about Black or White for years, but even so, your article opened up whole new vistas for looking at this incredible film. And once you really dive into it, you just see more and more and it’s hard to stop.
Joe: But I guess it’s probably for the best. I had to cut about 6-7,000 words as it was. That’s the nature of an academic article, and really, publishing in general. But I have no doubt this short film will continue to be written about in fresh and compelling ways. As Susan Fast points out in her amazing 33⅓ book on Dangerous, no song or video of Jackson’s has received more scholarly attention. It began with Armond White’s phenomenal article in 1991 for The City Sun, and has continued over the years, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. My article has been in the works for a few years now (it was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation), so it’s exciting to finally see it published!
Willa: It really is, especially since your article helps reveal just how truly revolutionary and powerful Black or White was at the time, a few months after the Rodney King beating was captured on videotape, and how powerful it remains to this day … even though the original, 11-minute version is hard to find. Though maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find – it’s just too potent for Vevo!
So your article is now out and available?
Joe: Yes, the article is now published in the March 27.1 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive at the moment to view in full. I would love to make it free obviously, but copyright won’t allow it for now. Susan Fast wrote a great explanation on her blog recently, explaining the academic publishing process, which like many other industries, is still trying to figure out how to operate and make content accessible in the digital era.
Willa: Yes, as Susan explains, academic journals are time consuming to create – that’s why articles are so expensive. It’s not about profit. Authors of academic papers don’t earn anything from publishing them, and we don’t hold the copyrights. So, for example, I wanted to repost my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article here at Dancing with the Elephant, but I couldn’t – I was asked to post a summary instead, with a link to the full article. Fortunately, most university libraries carry the Journal of Popular Music Studies, so those who live near a college or university can probably access your article for free there.
I also wanted to remind everyone that we have a link to your Library of Congress entry on Thriller available in our Reading Room, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it. So this article was written for the Library of Congress and placed on the National Register, is that right?
Joe: Right, I was invited to do a short piece on Thriller, which was a real honor. The Registry now includes about 400 recordings. Each of these recordings was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board, because they were deemed so vital to the history of America – aesthetically, culturally or historically – that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library. The registry has been reaching out to scholars and music critics to flesh out their website with a variety of scholarly essays on each of the 400 titles on the Registry, each of which are about 1,000 words. So people that love music history should check out some of the other essays as well – I’ve read several and they’re great reads.
Willa: They really are. I was just reading the entry for “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass, and interestingly enough it begins by comparing him to D.W. Griffith:
Like Martha Graham and, arguably, D.W. Griffith, what he created during his lifetime would go on to become an entire genre of art, a language, a vocabulary in which hundreds of other artists would create in its wake.
So just as Martha Graham created modern dance, and D.W. Griffith – through Birth of a Nation – created the modern film, Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass. Here’s a full list of essays on the Register, and a list of recordings.
Well, thank you so much for joining me, Joe! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Joe: Thank you, Willa. It’s always great to talk to you. And give my best to Joie!
Willa: I will!
Willa: Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.
Joie: I couldn’t agree more.
Willa: But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”
Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro: “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.
Joie: You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.
But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …
Joie: Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:
Monster He’s a monster He’s an animal
We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:
Why are they never satisfied with all you give? You give them your all They’re watching you fall And they eat your soul like a vegetable
Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.
Willa: Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.
But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:
You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable) Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable) You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable) They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)
This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor: that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.
So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:
Monster (Why you haunting me?) He’s a monster (Why are you stalking me?) He’s an animal (Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.
Willa: It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.
Joie: What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?
Willa: No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:
Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.
And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.
And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?
That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:
I’m tired of being abused You know you’re scaring me too I see the evil is you Is it scary for you, baby?
In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:
Can the heart reveal the proof Like a mirror reveals the truth? See the evil one is you
Joie: Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.
Willa: Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.
You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.
So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:
You’re fearing me ’Cause you know I’m a beast … I’m the living dead The dark thoughts in your head I heard just what you said That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me
So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.
But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.
Joie: And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?
Joie: So Willa, everyone knows that Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. But did you know that for a short while, Bad was actually the second biggest-selling album of all time?
Willa: Really? No, I didn’t know that.
Joie: To this day, in fact, it is still regarded as one of the best-selling albums ever made – I think it’s like number six on the worldwide list – and until Katy Perry tied the record with her album Teenage Dream, it was the first and only album to spawn five number one singles.
Willa: I did know that, and it’s amazing – especially for an album many saw as under-performing in terms of record sales. It shows just how high the bar was set for the follow-up album to Thriller.
Joie: That record stood unmatched for 23 years! And what I love most about this album is that Michael penned over 80% of it himself – nine out of the 11 tracks on the album were written by him.
So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though for many people, Thriller is often seen as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s success (and commercially, that is certainly true), it is actually the follow-up album, Bad, where we begin to see the artist really stretch his wings and grow artistically, emotionally, creatively, and politically.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Joie, and something Quincy Jones has suggested also. As he says in the first additional track on the Bad, Special Edition album, “I could just see him growing as an artist and understanding production and all that stuff.” So here’s a question I want to ask Quincy Jones every time I hear that, but I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you instead: what do you see as the major signs of growth between Thriller and Bad?
Joie: Well, first of all, what I just pointed out. The fact that he wrote the majority of the songs on it. With his first two adult solo efforts, Off the Wall and Thriller, that wasn’t the case. He only wrote three of the songs on Off the Wall and four on Thriller. So I think that shows major growth and maturity, both artistically and creatively.
Willa: That’s true, and we can see that in the number of videos he made also. He made three each for Off the Wall and Thriller, but he made eight for Bad – nine if you count “Leave Me Alone” – and nine for Dangerous, so Bad seems to have been an important turning point for him that way too.
Joie: Also, the things he’s writing about. The subject matter of the songs on Bad show a lot of maturity and growth as well.
Willa: I suppose, though “Billie Jean” is so emotionally complex, and there’s a lot of depth in “Beat It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Workin’ Day and Night” as well. So it’s not like his previous songs were simplistic.
Joie: Well, that’s very true. Simplistic is not a word I would use to describe his writing. But, I don’t know. The Bad album just seems a little more “grown up” to me than his previous two adult efforts.
Willa: And more uniquely “him” because he did write so many of the songs himself, as you mentioned earlier. You know, the story you always hear about Bad is that he put tremendous pressure on himself to top Thriller, and I’m sure those kinds of pressures were there to some degree. Creating a follow-up to Thriller would be intimidating, I’m sure.
Joie: Oh, no doubt about it. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must be like.
Willa: Oh, I know! But listening to this album, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of anxiety and insecurity. He sounds very sure of himself, with a message he feels compelled to share and the confidence to share it. I wonder if that’s part of what you’re feeling, Joie, when you say that, for you, this is the album where he really comes into his own.
Joie: You could be onto something there, Willa. He does seem to have a certain level of self-confidence and even cockiness on this album so, maybe that is what I’m reacting to. And, you know, when I think about this album, it’s really difficult for me to choose the one stand-out track that sets this CD apart or makes it great because really, every song is a masterpiece all by itself.
Willa: I know what you mean, and I wonder if that’s because of all the videos. You know, in Moonwalk he talks about the videos he made for the Thriller album and emphasizes that they weren’t just tacked on after the fact as a marketing tool. They were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
And Bad is where he really achieves that goal of presenting his songs “as visually as possible.” Except for the two duets, he made a video for every song on the album, and I think that contributes to that feeling you’re talking about, Joie, that “every song is a masterpiece.” Because each song has its own video, each one feels like a fully realized, multi-sensory work of art.
You know, even when I’m not watching the videos themselves, like when I’m listening to Bad on the car stereo, I’m still visualizing those images. They’re just an integral part of each song for me now.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa; they do feel like an “integral part of each song” and it is almost impossible not to visualize the short film when listening to the songs themselves. And I’m sure that was probably very intentional on his part, as that quote you cited from Moonwalk points out. And, as you said earlier, he also made nine videos for his following album, Dangerous and eight for the HIStory album so, I believe presenting the music “as visually as possible” was something that was very important to him and something that he was committed to doing.
Willa: I agree. It really feels to me like he achieved the fullest expression of his art through his videos. That’s where it all comes together: the music, the dance, that incredible voice, the visual cues, the backstory and narrative – or as he described the structure of his videos, the beginning and the middle and the ending of what he’s trying to convey.
Joie: I agree. And it really makes you think about his great love of films. Sometimes I believe his videos are so amazing because of his love for film. How many times did he talk about the power of film and being able to take an audience anywhere you wanted them to go, all through film. And many times, that’s what his videos do – they transport you momentarily to a different place. A place of his choosing. It’s no wonder he wanted them referred to as ‘short films’ instead of videos.
And just thinking about that fact makes me really angry that he was hindered from doing the same with Invincible. I love that album so much, and I would have loved to have seen what videos he could have come up with for it. But you’re right, Bad is the first album where he achieves this goal of presenting the music as visually as possible and because of that, his name really became sort of synonymous with music videos.
It’s an interesting concept that no one else was really doing at the time. You know, most artists were just using the music video as a sort of promotional tool and the resulting videos had very little to do with the song itself. But Michael changed all that; he ‘flipped the script’ as the saying goes. Suddenly music videos weren’t just some abstract add on but, they were a way to actually bring the song to life.
Willa: And not always in ways you expect – like who would ever listen to “Liberian Girl” and imagine the video he created for it? Or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? Or “Speed Demon”? Or “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “Dirty Diana”? Actually, the Dirty Diana video probably enacts the lyrics more closely than the others: as he sings about a performer being approached by a groupie, we discover that he really is a performer being approached by a groupie.
But even it heightens and complicates the lyrics in interesting ways. In fact, there are some very interesting details in Dirty Diana. For example, he’s singing about this love triangle between himself, My Baby, and Diana. Diana just wants him, or her idea of him as a famous rock star, and she doesn’t really care if she hurts him or My Baby. At one point he sings that he’s talking on the phone with My Baby, and Diana says into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me.” That is such a moment of betrayal – just imagine how painful that moment must be for him and My Baby – yet the concert crowd roars when he sings that. The audience goes nuts. And it’s interesting – the roar of the crowd at that moment isn’t on the album; it’s only in the video.
What the crowd’s reaction says pretty clearly is that they aren’t listening to this song from My Baby’s point of view, or even his point of view, but from Diana’s – and really, that makes perfect sense because they are like Diana. They want him too, just like Diana does. We see that in the video when he rips his shirt open. The crowd really goes wild then. He’s an object of desire, and they fantasize about fulfilling that desire, regardless of the consequences for him or his private life.
And actually, that seems to be the position he wants the audience to be in – he wants us to desire him when he’s on stage, and he wants us to align ourselves with Diana. We see that in the lyrics, where he encourages us to sympathize with her and see things from her point of view. So the audience is positioned with her, which makes sense. But then at the end of the video he does that classic Michael Jackson move we see in so many of his videos where he suddenly shifts the perspective. We follow him as he comes offstage, he opens the door of his car, and there’s a very unsettling power chord as he sees there’s a woman waiting for him inside.
Joie: That’s a very sharp observation, Willa. I never made that connection between the roar of the crowd and the audience’s point of view in this video before. Interesting.
Willa: Oh, it’s so interesting – what he does with point of view is just fascinating to me, and he plays with it constantly, in such complicated ways. Like when the perspective shifts in Dirty Diana, suddenly everything takes on a very different character. This isn’t the typical rock star/groupie fantasy we see played out in so many music videos. This is the fantasy giving way to realism, and suddenly our perspective shifts and we’re forced to consider the situation more from his point of view – and his point of view is really complicated. It’s always complicated. He never lets us off with a simple answer.
So there’s a beautiful young woman sitting in his car wanting to have sex with him, and on the one hand, that’s a nice problem to have. I mean, really, things could be worse. But on the other hand, he doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her – doesn’t know if she’s kind or cruel or nutty as a fruitcake – and he’s just described in the lyrics how a woman like this has the potential to hurt him and My Baby. So it’s complicated.
Joie: It is complicated. And, as we talked about last summer during the My Baby series, Dirty Diana perfectly highlights that complicated, often strange issue of celebrity and fame. And it’s also a perfect example of presenting the music “as visually as possible.” As you stated earlier, many of the short films tell a much different story than we would expect when simply listening to the song itself; but that’s not the case with Dirty Diana. Here the short film mirrors the song very closely – so the song itself really does come alive before our very eyes. If that’s not presenting the music visually, I don’t know what is!
NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on January 11, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
This Passion Burns Inside of Me
Willa: This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.
However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.
One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.
But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)
What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.
Joie: Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.
Willa: I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.
Joie: Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.
Willa: And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring: Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.
He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.
I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”
Joie: Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,
She’s just a lover who gets me by It worth the giving, it’s worth the try You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it
In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,
It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it It’s just desire, you cannot waste it But if you want it, then won’t you taste it
He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,
If you can get it, it’s worth a try I really want it, I can’t deny It’s just desire, I really love it ‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it
He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.
I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.
I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”
Willa: Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.
Joie: Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.
Willa: That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo: because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.
There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories: respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.” She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.”
While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?
Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?
Joie: That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,
There’s something about you, baby That makes me want to give it to you I swear there’s something about you, baby That makes me want…
He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,
Just promise me that whatever we say Or whatever we do to each other For now, we’ll make a vow to just Keep it in the closet
It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.
Willa: That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.
I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.
Joie: I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.
Willa: That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:
I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.
When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.
So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.
And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.
The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.
The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”
Joie: But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!
Joie: So, Willa, for the past two weeks, we have looked at two out of the three Michael Jackson works that you say sort of form The Trilogy of his aesthetic – “Ben” and Thriller. This week, let’s go over the final work in that trilogy – Ghosts – and talk about how it fits in and how all three of them seem to deal with this complicated issue of crossing the boundaries that separate us. As we all know, this is a subject that Michael dealt with often in his career and, for you, this idea of The Trilogy is very important because of it, right?
Willa: It really is, partly because each of these works is so important individually, and partly because looking at them together allows us to see the progression of his ideas.
In “Ben,” which was recorded in January of 1972, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a young boy who becomes friends with a rat. Most humans see rats as disgusting, as “other,” so this friendship is a socially transgressive act. In other words, “Ben” is the story of an improper friendship. But it presents this relationship as so special and beautiful that it challenges us to alter our perceptions about this unconventional friendship. Importantly, though, while the boy and the rat cross social boundaries, they’re external boundaries. What I mean is they cross the boundary between them by becoming friends, but the boy remains a boy and the rat remains a rat.
Twelve years later, in December of 1983, Michael Jackson released the Thriller video, and it expands the ideas of “Ben” in crucially important ways. Once again, Michael Jackson is a young man crossing socially prohibited boundaries, but this time those boundaries are within himself. He becomes a werewolf, which blurs the boundary between man and animal, and then becomes a zombie, which blurs the boundary between living and dead. So Thriller isn’t about an “improper” friendship but about an “improper” person whose identity is constantly in flux. So it internalizes the crossing of those boundaries and alters how we perceive and respond to this unconventional person, as well as how we perceive and maybe express the prohibited boundaries we feel within ourselves.
What’s especially interesting about Thriller, though, is how it reworks the emotions of this issue. Basically, Thriller tells us that crossing boundaries isn’t scary – it’s fun! It’s thrilling, in fact. Look at the many Michael characters on screen. Which one do you want to be? The repressed Michael at the beginning who’s trying very hard to be a proper person, or the free-spirited Michael who’s cutting loose and dancing with zombies? As you said so well last week, Joie, he’s “inhabiting those differences” he feels within himself – he’s embracing the many different aspects of his personality, including the scary or shameful parts we’re told to keep hidden – and he’s having a blast! Just look at him dance, and look at his face at the end when he turns and fixes us with those freaky cat eyes. He’s beaming! He couldn’t be happier. Thriller handles this all so skillfully and effortlessly that we don’t realize what a radical psychological shift this is, but I believe Thriller functions at a deep psychological level to challenge some of our most primal fears about difference, about “other,” and neutralize them. And it’s brilliant.
Thirteen years later, in 1996, Michael Jackson created Ghosts and took another quantum leap forward. This time he’s approaching the issue in a theoretical way and suggesting specific ways in which art can help us overcome the boundaries between us. In other words, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art. It’s meta-art – it’s art about art – and in it we see evidence of Michael Jackson creating a new poetics.
Joie: You know, Willa, that’s something you say often – that Michael was creating a new poetics. Can you explain what you mean in very simple terms for those who may not understand what it is you’re trying to say?
Willa: That’s a really good question, Joie. There are many different definitions, actually, but what I mean is that he’s creating a new philosophy of art, or a new paradigm for conceptualizing art – a new theoretical framework for understanding what art is, how it functions, and what it has the potential to accomplish. You know, if we go back and look at the major artists in history – artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol – they didn’t just create important works of art. They also altered our definition of art, and that’s what Michael Jackson is doing. He’s creating exquisite works of art, but he’s also redefining what art is and expanding our ideas about what is possible through art. And that’s why he’s the most important artist of our time.
Joie: Ok, so let’s talk about what’s going on in Ghosts and why you feel it’s part of The Trilogy. You say that Ghosts is art about art, but how does it fit in with this theme of crossing the boundaries that keep us separated?
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, Ghosts is the story of an artist – a Maestro – who’s under attack by the provincial townspeople of Normal Valley. They’re scared of him because he’s so unnervingly different – they think he’s a “freak,” a “weirdo” – so they approach his home with torches in hand, determined to drive him away. But something unexpected happens: the Maestro engages them in a series of artistic experiences, and through those artistic experiences not only changes how they feel about him, but how they feel about difference more generally.
So Ghosts is functioning on several levels at once. On one level, it’s pure entertainment and engaging us in an interesting story. At another level, it’s creating a parable for what was actually happening to Michael Jackson himself in real life, and explaining how he plans to respond as an artist to the threats against him by Tom Sneddon and others. And at another level, it’s art talking about art and demonstrating how art can change perceptions and bring about significant social change – just like it changes the perceptions and attitudes of the residents of Normal Valley.
Joie: That is really very interesting, Willa. You know, I’ve said this before but, I really feel like I need to say it again. Before you asked me to read M Poetica and give you my opinion on it, I never really thought about Michael’s work on such a deep artistic level before. And I know now that it was because I didn’t really have the tools or the knowledge to do so. But I really feel like you have taught me so much about art and about how to interpret art, and I’m really grateful for that. Its allowed me to really examine Michael’s work in a way I never really had before.
Willa: Well, believe me, Joie, I know exactly how you feel. I enjoyed Thriller for years simply as a very entertaining video. In fact, I still enjoy it that way, and that’s perfectly ok. In the 1999 MTV interview we cited last week, Michael Jackson is asked what makes a good music video, and his first response is, “In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining.” And he succeeded: his work in general, and Thriller in particular, is wonderfully entertaining.
But as much as I appreciated Thriller simply as entertainment, I increasingly felt there was a lot more going on – but I just couldn’t get my mind around it somehow. I could feel that something significant was happening, but I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. It wasn’t until I started studying Ghosts that something clicked for me. As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art – it’s also art talking about art, and exploring specific ways that art can change people’s minds about difference and bring about social change. And as I studied that and thought about it, I suddenly realized that the specific processes he’s describing in Ghosts are happening in Thriller. So basically, Ghosts gave me the tools I needed to interpret Thriller in a whole new way. For me, Ghosts opened up a new avenue for thinking about art, and that new view allowed me to see Thriller in ways I never had before.
So Michael Jackson isn’t just creating a new type of art that functions in a new way, which is amazing enough. He’s also providing us with the theoretical apparatus we need to interpret this new kind of art. And Joie, it just blows me away. As an artist, he’s phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally creative – just off-the-charts brilliant – and I think we’re only beginning to realize the depths of his work and the tremendous implications of what he’s showing us.
Joie: Well, I agree completely that he is ‘off-the-charts brilliant’ as you put it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And I have to say that, I really love your observation that Ghosts is ‘art talking about art.’ That’s not only a really profound statement to make but, it was also a very profound, very bold move for Michael Jackson to make. Create a video – a work of art – that talks about art and the ways we can use it to educate and to change people’s minds about the social injustices surrounding us. That’s amazing stuff!
Willa: It really is. And in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?
As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts begins with the residents of Normal Valley approaching the Maestro’s home, intent on driving him out because they think he’s monstrous, a “freak.” And their emotions at that moment are pretty complicated: they fear him, but they’re also excited and empowered by the idea of driving him out.
As we discussed in a post about Ghosts a few weeks ago, the Maestro responds to the townspeople with a two-phase process. First he takes on their fears and desires and reflects those emotions back at them: he appears to them in a mask, so gives them the monster they want him to be. But then he lowers the mask and reveals it’s just an illusion. That’s the second phase. And this quick double movement of first inflating their fears and desires and then deflating them provides a type of catharsis, and helps neutralize the emotions they are projecting onto him.
But the Mayor doesn’t want those fears neutralized. His goal is just the opposite – he wants to whip up those emotions and keep the townspeople in a state of fear and agitation. So he begins building his case against the Maestro: that he’s a “freak,” a scary unknown, a monster who’s infecting the town’s children with mysterious ghost stories. In response, the Maestro once again evokes that two-phase movement of embodying and inflating the emotions they’re projecting onto him and then deflating them. First, he distorts his face, making it grotesque and scary. Here are a couple of screen captures:
Then he rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull. But importantly, after the townspeople have fully experienced those emotions they were projecting onto him, he cracks the skull, reveals his true face, and shows it’s all just an illusion.
Then he enacts this two-phase process a third time, but it’s a little different this time around because their emotions have changed, so the emotions they’re projecting onto him have changed. They aren’t as afraid of him as they were before – in fact, they’re starting to enjoy him and his “freakish” troupe of dancers – but they’re still unsure of him and still want him to leave, though they’re conflicted about it. So he enacts those emotions for them: he destroys himself and turns to dust before their eyes. But then he reappears and once again shows it was just an illusion. So repeatedly we see him embodying and even exaggerating the fears and desires the townspeople are projecting onto him, and then diffusing them.
Joie: I think it’s really interesting that he repeats this process over and over again throughout this short film. That lets me know that he was really trying to make a point. There’s something that he wants us to really get … some idea that he wants us to really grasp and understand. Otherwise why keep repeating yourself?
Willa: It feels that way to me too. He enacts this double movement three times in Ghosts, one right after the other – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Ghosts, that series of three double movements – which tells me this is really significant. Importantly, that’s exactly what he’s doing in Thriller as well, as we talked about last week. In fact, the plot of Thriller is also a series of three double movements – or rather two and a half since the last one ends unresolved – and if we look at what was happening in 1983, the plot of Thriller makes perfect sense. In the early 1980s, he was our nation’s first Black teen idol, which was both titillating and monstrous to a lot of people. So he responds by becoming a monster onscreen – a werewolf, a zombie, an unknown creature with cat eyes – but then neutralizes those emotions by showing us “It’s only a movie.”
And I believe he responded to the media hysteria surrounding the false molestation allegations the same way. Through the illusion of plastic surgery, he made himself monstrous in the public mind. But it’s just an illusion. He’s merely reflecting what the public is projecting onto him, as he explains very clearly in “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see Eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize. … So did you come to me To see your fantasies Performed before your very eyes? A haunting ghostly treat The ghoulish trickery And spirits dancing in the night? But if you came to see The truth, the purity It’s here inside a lonely heart So let the performance start So tell me, Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was “realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before. It’s such a new kind of art it’s hard to recognize it at first, but it’s a work of art with a very specific purpose and function – to rewrite a false cultural narrative and provide catharsis for the emotions driving that false narrative. It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity, but once we get our minds around it, we realize it’s built on sound principles of art and psychology – and the intersection of art and psychology, especially group psychology, is a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. In other words, it’s perfectly aligned with the artistic principles he’s establishing in Ghosts and throughout his work.
And Joie, I can’t say emphatically enough how important and radical this work is. In M Poetica I said that I see his face as his masterpiece, and I believe that strongly. I love his voice and his music and his dancing and his films – you know how much I love them – but his face, and the illusions he conducted through his face, points the way to a new kind of art that has the potential to challenge some of our most entrenched cultural narratives and rewrite those narratives. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I love the way you put that: “It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity.” That is such a true statement when it comes to anything having to do with Michael Jackson. I think that sentence pretty much sums up his entire career and persona. He was “breathtaking in his sheer audacity!”
Joie: So Willa, last week we began a discussion about something you call The Trilogy, and it has to do with the way you relate to three of Michael Jackson’s works – “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts – and how you feel that they all fit together in some way and sort of form Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. Last week we concentrated on the song “Ben” and what a powerful message of acceptance that song carries. This week, I was hoping we could take a look at the Thriller short film and talk about how it fits into this idea of The Trilogy for you.
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, I see challenging the differences that divide us as a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s art and life. He was driven by a vision of all of us united as one people, despite divisions of race, gender, nationality, sexuality, age, religion, disability, or any other differences used to segregate people into separate camps. We see this in song after song, video after video, as well as in interviews and speeches and the charities he supported. However, for me, there are three works in particular that shine like beacons and really challenge the artificial boundaries that divide us, and those three are “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts.
Joie: That’s really interesting, Willa, because as I said last week, I have never looked at the Thriller short film as addressing ‘the artificial boundaries,’ as you put it or the differences between us all. I’m really interested to hear how you see this.
Willa: Well, it’s subtly handled – in fact, it’s almost like he’s transmitting his message in a preconscious way – but all three of these works breach the boundaries between us in new and compelling ways, and I especially see that in Thriller.
As we all know, both Thriller and Ghosts play off of the horror movie genre. But interestingly, when Alex Colletti asked Michael Jackson, “Were you a fan of horror movies?” in a 1999 MTV interview, he replied,
Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. Honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing.
And evoking horror doesn’t seem to be his objective in these two short films. There seems to be something else going on.
If we look carefully at Thriller, we discover that it’s a very specific type of horror movie. It isn’t about mutant spiders or snakes, or an enormous ape climbing the Empire State building, or dinosaurs brought back to life through their DNA. It’s not about an especially lethal tornado or tidal wave or an asteroid about to hit the Earth. It’s not about extra-terrestrial aliens intent on world domination, or a mysterious infection sweeping the population. It’s not about a homicidal maniac with a chain saw or a rifle or an unquenchable taste for his fellow humans. It’s not about an ancient prediction that the world will end in two weeks, or the start of World War III, or nuclear holocaust, or environmental collapse. It’s not even a monster movie in the same way as Godzilla or Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Joie: Well, you make a really good point here but, now I’m afraid you have me wanting to curl up on the couch with some DVDs and a big bowl of popcorn!
Willa: That’s funny! We should have a movie night sometime, though I’m warning you – I’m a wimp when it comes to scary movies. But if we look closely at Thriller, we discover it’s a very specific kind of horror movie: it’s the story of a cute teenage boy who crosses boundaries. First he crosses the boundary between wolf and man, but he doesn’t cross that boundary completely. He doesn’t become a wolf. Instead, he stops midway and comes to inhabit this intermediate space where he is both wolf and man. He becomes a wolfman, a werewolf. Later he confuses the boundary between the living and the dead, and again comes to inhabit this weird in-between space where he is both living and dead. He becomes one of the undead, a zombie.
Joie: Ok. I think I see where you’re going with this. Basically, what you’re saying is that you feel Michael Jackson’s character in Thriller is sort of symbolic of embracing the differences between us that we talked about last week when looking at the song “Ben.” In the Thriller video, his character is inhabiting those differences and purposely crossing those boundaries.
Willa: Exactly. That’s exactly where I was heading, and you’re right – it ties in beautifully with “Ben” and expands the ideas he was singing about in that song. But I think there’s a lot more going on as well.
Julia Kristeva is a literary theorist who’s also a psychoanalyst, and she believes that humans feel a deep psychological threat when certain kinds of boundaries are blurred or challenged or transgressed in some way. As she describes in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, we create our identity and define who we are by creating boundaries between what is us and what is not us, so anything that threatens to break down those boundaries also threatens us with dissolution – it threatens our identity at the most fundamental psychological level. For example, she says that’s why we feel such disgust toward human waste, because it has crossed the boundary between inside the body and outside the body, between us and not-us, and forced us to realize that those boundaries are more permeable than we’d like them to be, and that threatens us at a deep, primal level.
Joie: Now that is really interesting! I’ve never heard of her before but, I’d like to read that book. It sounds fascinating.
Willa: Oh, it is fascinating, and it’s really led me to see this issue of crossing boundaries in a very different way – not just as a social/political issue, but as a powerful psychological issue. She also talks about corpses, and why they are so horrifying to us:
If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border?
So Kristeva sees our revulsion for corpses as the most extreme example of the primal fear that threatens to overwhelm us when the boundaries between us and not-us fail. As she says, “How can I be without border?” It threatens our very existence, psychologically. It threatens who we are, the “I” that I establish as myself. And I think this explains why corpses figure so prominently in two of Michael Jackson’s most important works, even though he didn’t like horror movies. It’s because he’s directly confronting our deepest fears of the dissolution of those boundaries at their most primal level.
Aldebaran provided a fascinating example of this deep-seated fear of transgressing boundaries in a comment a couple of weeks ago, when she talked about an article in The Guardian. As Aldebaran described it, the article is
about a bi-racial family and they had twins – one twin was born Black and the other White. Interestingly, it was the White twin who got bullied in school, so much that his parents took him out. It is a very interesting article about the racial barriers in place. The kids bullied the White twin b/c they thought he was really Black yet appeared White – sort of like MJ and the dancer Arthur Wright. In school the teachers wanted the White twin to draw himself as Black – it was unreal.
If we look at this situation through the lens of Kristeva’s ideas, the actions of the school bullies make perfect sense. They didn’t bully the “Black” twin because he looked Black, he stayed within his proper category, and therefore didn’t threaten their identity. He was “safely” Black. But the other twin had the same parents and the same genetic background and therefore was signified as “Black” by the other kids and even the teachers, but he looked White. Apparently, blurring this boundary between Black and White presented a deep psychological threat to those school kids because he looked like he was one of them but they felt he was not one of them. They reacted to that threat by reinforcing the boundary between them and him – in other words, they bullied him to state very clearly to him (and themselves) that he was not-them.
And of course, as Aldebaran points out, this is “sort of like MJ.” He challenged racial boundaries even before he developed vitiligo, and he blurred many other boundaries as well. And that provoked a violent backlash, just like the backlash against the White-Black twin.
Joie: Well, that is very true; he did. And, I guess we could make the argument that Kristeva’s theories could apply to racism in all its forms – that “us vs. them” mentality or thought process that always gets us into trouble.
Willa: That’s true, or to anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or homophobia, or xenophobia, or any of the prejudices that divide us. And how do we as a culture break out of that? There is no logical reason why those boundaries have been drawn the way they have – there’s nothing real or true or natural about those boundaries – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and don’t pack a lot of psychological power. I think that is the problem Thriller is tackling. We could spend months exploring this more fully, but I think Thriller functions at a deep psychological level by directly confronting the fear and horror we feel toward anything – or anyone – who transgresses the boundaries we use to define ourselves.
For example, at the time Thriller was made, Michael Jackson was becoming recognized as a sex symbol of the same magnitude as Elvis or the Beatles or Frank Sinatra. It was unheard of for a Black man to be in that position, in part because the United States is a deeply racist country with strong prohibitions against sexual attraction between Black men and White women. One element of that racism is a centuries-old cultural narrative that Black men are oversexed, that they can’t control their animal urges, that they are in fact rapists. Statistically, a White woman is much more likely to be raped by her (White) boyfriend than by a (Black) stranger on the street, and that message is being conveyed more accurately now. But in the early 1980s, when Thriller was released, it was still very common for young White women to be warned not to walk alone, especially in unfamiliar places, because they could be attacked by a (Black) assailant.
So what does it mean to be a Black male sex symbol in a country that signifies Black men as unable to control their sexual urges? That’s a incredibly complicated situation to be in, and that’s one of the issues Michael Jackson confronts in Thriller. The film begins with a teenage boy and girl out on a date. Importantly, the boy’s name is Michael, so there’s an identification between the character on screen and Michael Jackson himself, and that’s significant. It wouldn’t work quite the same way if his name were William or Gregory.
This teenage couple is in a car and they run out of gas – a familiar ploy for “parking” or making out, so we’re in a sexual situation – and suddenly we are confronted with our worst fears. This rather repressed young Black man loses control of himself, he can’t control his animal urges, he becomes unrecognizable, and he assaults his girlfriend. It’s like a rape scene: she’s lying on her back in fear, he’s looming over her, and he attacks her. We don’t see it but we hear it, and we see the reactions of the audience watching this scene, including the boyfriend and girlfriend, who are now positioned in the movie theater with the audience. She can’t take it and walks out, and he follows her and tells her, “It’s only a movie.”
Joie: Wow, Willa. You know, I had never looked at that scene as mirroring a rape scenario before but, you’re absolutely right; it does play out that way, doesn’t it? Now I feel silly for never picking up on that before!
Willa: Well it’s very subtly handled, and we can interpret this intro section of Thriller many ways, but one way is to see it as directly challenging the racist cultural narrative that Black men cannot control their sexual urges. And it does so brilliantly through a two-phase process. First, it exaggerates this myth, inflating it until its huge and fills our minds, so we as a nation are forced to come face to face with our worst fears. And then it explodes that myth and shows us it’s just an illusion. Our fears are just a myth, a false cultural narrative – or as Michael tells us, “It’s only a movie.”
But I want to emphasize that this is merely one way to interpret Thriller, and to be honest, I don’t particularly like this interpretation. It’s too specific, and feels too restrictive to me. Those elements are definitely in there, so I think this is a valid interpretation, but to me Thriller is about much more than that. It’s addressing difference more generally, and it is functioning at a deep psychological, almost preconscious level. And what it’s saying – amazingly enough – is that crossing boundaries isn’t scary. It’s fun! That to me is the message of Thriller, and what an incredible message it is! It’s taking all those fears and flipping them upside down and inside out.
Thriller is an amazing work of art. Everything about it – the way the narrative is structured, the way the two central characters reappear again and again, the way it draws on and connects the legend of the werewolf and the zombie, the way it incorporates song and dance into the narrative – every detail is stunning and perfect. It’s truly a brilliant work of art, but it’s also a work of art that brought about profound cultural changes, and we’re just beginning to look at that in an in-depth way. And I think we’re far from understanding it.
Joie: I think you’re right about that; we are very far from understanding most of what Michael was trying to teach us through his art. You know, according to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions of the word prophet is: one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight; especially: an inspired poet. I think that definition could easily be describing Michael Jackson.
Willa: Oh, I love that! “An inspired poet” – what a great description!
Joie: It is nice, isn’t it? And as I’ve said before, I truly believe that each short film had a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere and it was usually a lesson about how we should be treating one another with love and respect. I believe that was his mission and his purpose here on this Earth and he completed that mission to the very best of his ability. The rest is up to us now.
On a side note – Willa and I have come across a clip of the Adair Lion video, Ben. So, as promised, we have now updated last week’s post with the new link so, be sure to go back and check it out!
Willa: So Joie, as Michael Jackson and his collaborators were preparing for the This Is It concerts in London, they created some film segments to be shown on that huge screen behind the stage during the performances of “Bad / They Don’t Care about Us,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Earth Song,” and “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened.” Kenny Ortega included those films, or parts of them, in the movie, This Is It, and they’re very interesting – like little vignettes or short stories within the larger film.
I’m really intrigued by those short films and how they were going to be incorporated into the concerts. I’m especially intrigued by this one moment in This Is It, just as “Thriller” is about to segue into “Ghosts,” where we see Michael Jackson dancing to “Thriller,” then see a film clip of a rat climbing on an iron fence, and then see one of those huge ghost puppets that were going to be carried throughout the audience during “Ghosts.”
That moment is so interesting to me because, if I had to identify the works that best illustrate Michael Jackson’s aesthetic, I would have to say “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts. I find myself returning to these three works again and again when trying to clarify for myself Michael Jackson’s ideas, and his strategies for conveying those ideas. To me, they are the trilogy at the center of his belief system and his aesthetic. And for one brief moment in This Is It, they seem to come together – almost as if they are clasping hands.
Joie: Ok, Willa, I have to be honest and say that you have me a little baffled here. Please explain what you mean about ‘the trilogy’ because, I’m having difficulty understanding how these three works connect for you because, to me – on the surface anyway – the song “Ben” has very little to do with the Thriller and Ghosts short films.
Willa: Well, for me, Michael Jackson was always very interested in “difference” – how we designate it, how we perceive it, and how we respond to it. Because he was Black and because the U.S. is so fixated on race, we tend to interpret his work in terms of racial prejudice – and it’s true that challenging racist ideas and biases was very important to him. But I think he was also talking about difference more generally, and working toward overcoming boundaries of difference based on race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, disability, height, weight, wealth, social status, or even just a vague sense that someone is “weird” or “freakish” or uncomfortably odd in some way.
And I definitely see this in “Ben” – this impulse to question how we perceive and designate difference, and to challenge the prejudices that often result from that. After all, “Ben” is a story about a rat who is despised by most people simply because he’s a rat. But he’s befriended by a boy who is able to see beyond those prejudices and love him for who he is inside. As the boy sings,
Ben, most people would turn you away I don’t listen to a word they say They don’t see you as I do I wish they would try to I’m sure they’d think again If they had a friend like Ben
There have been other works that have tried to turn rats and mice into appealing characters – for example, Stuart Little, or Ratty in Wind in the Willows, or Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle stories, or Mrs. Tittlemouse in the Beatrix Potter stories.
Joie: Or Mrs. Fribsy and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brian. I love that book!
Willa: Oh, that’s a great example! Or more recently, there’s Ratatouille or The Tale of Despereau. But what’s interesting is that in all of these works, these characters are made acceptable by making them less rodent-like and more human – in other words, by making them more “normal” from our point of view. They wear human clothes. They pilot a boat or ride a motorcycle. They live in human-like houses and cook human-like food and do human-like chores. Here’s a picture of Mrs. Tittlemouse:
But “Ben” is very different. The boy knows that Ben is a rat, knows that he is marked as different because of that, but loves him just the way he is. In all those other works, there’s this very strong impulse to make these little rodents cute and appealing and more “normal” – more human. But that impulse is entirely absent from “Ben.” The boy doesn’t seem to feel the need to change Ben to make him more acceptable. He doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or give him a toy motorcycle to ride or humanize him in any way. It’s much simpler than that. He loves Ben, Ben loves him, and that’s it.
Joie: Ok, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right; he doesn’t attempt to humanize the rat at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As you said, he knows that Ben is a rat and that he’s “different.” But he’s not afraid of or intimidated by those differences. Instead, he embraces the differences and loves Ben anyway. It’s a lesson that we can all learn from – love and tolerance. Even though we’re all different doesn’t mean we can’t still treat one another with decency and respect.
Willa: Exactly, and I love the way you put that: “he embraces the differences.” He’s not saying differences don’t exist. They do – we’re all wonderfully different. Instead, he’s saying that those kinds of surface differences shouldn’t determine how we respond to each other and feel about each other. He knows Ben is a rat but he also knows his heart, and that’s what’s important. He’s still able to “see” him and genuinely know him, and love him. So instead of trying to make Ben acceptable by trying to change him and make him “normal,” he challenges us to overcome our prejudices and accept Ben the way he is. As he sings, “They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to.”
Joie: It makes me think about a video I recently came across by rapper Adair Lion. The song is called “Ben” and, even though he is addressing homosexuality, the song’s message could be talking about racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice. He samples Michael Jackson’s “Ben” quite a bit in the song and I think that Michael probably would have loved it. Here’s the video:
Willa: Oh heavens, Joie, what a wonderful video! Thanks for sharing that. And you’re right, Adair Lion is talking about homophobia but he also parallels it with racism and other forms of prejudice – like when the white girl goes to kiss him and the other white girl stops her and gets pretty violent about it. And he makes those connections explicit in the rap when he says:
I guess him over there He chose to be Black And her Asian And them White And those god-awful gays Chose to live that life
So he’s talking about specific forms of prejudice, but by paralleling them he’s also talking about difference more generally, and that’s very Michael Jackson – and very appropriate to the message of “Ben,” I think.
I’m also really drawn to the scenes of the little girl trying to spend the birthday money her two fathers gave her. It’s a $3 bill, and the woman at the ice cream store rejects her funny money and refuses to serve her an ice cream cone, and the woman at the toy store rejects it as well and refuses to sell her a doll. But then she comes to the taco stand where Adair Lion’s character is working, and his buddy is surprised by the $3 bill but accepts it – he not only sells her a lollypop but gives her two extra ones. It’s a simple straightforward message, but very moving.
And then the video ends with this powerful postscript:
Coincidentally, Ben is the name of someone I’ve never met – my dad So why would I ever judge someone who’s trying to be two Of what I never had?
As you know, Joie, “Ben” is very special to me, and to be perfectly honest I was pretty reluctant to watch this video because the original means so much to me. I guess I was worried he’d misappropriate it or trivialize it somehow. But actually it made me cry. I’m not sure why it affected me so much – maybe because I was about the same age as that little girl the first time I heard “Ben” – but also because this video feels so heart-felt and sincere.
Joie: It is a pretty compelling video; you’re right. And the fact that he has sampled Michael Jackson’s “Ben” only serves to make it that much more powerful since that song is all about seeing past the differences in all of us.
You know, Willa, the sweet sentiment in Michael Jackson’s voice as he sings that song is so overwhelmingly pure and real. And I wonder sometimes if – at only 14 years old – he understood what a huge message that song carried. It certainly feels very heartfelt when you listen to it. The song was written by Don Black and composed by Walter Scharf, and was the theme song for the 1972 film, Ben (the sequel to the 1971 movie Willard, about a killer rat). It was originally intended for young Donny Osmond but he was on tour and unavailable at the time. So, Michael was actually the second choice to record the song – which just confounds me because, as wonderful as Donny Osmond is, I just can’t imagine anyone else but Michael singing it.
Willa: Oh, I know, and apparently Michael Jackson couldn’t either! In an interview with Life After 50 a few months ago, Donny Osmond says he told him that “Ben” was originally written for him, and Michael Jackson said, “Get out of here!” He couldn’t believe it, and I can’t either. “Ben” and Michael Jackson are so connected in my mind.
And you can tell “Ben” was very important to him. You can hear it in his voice, and by how often he returned to it. He sang it in concerts for years, and he included it on almost all of his compilation albums, including The Best of Michael Jackson, Anthology, Number Ones, The Ultimate Collection, and The Essential Michael Jackson.
Joie: That’s true; he did return to it again and again.
Willa: He really did. And as a child he even adopted some pet rats. Here’s a picture:
Perhaps most importantly is how the themes of “Ben” recur in his later work – not just confronting prejudice against difference, but linking that prejudice to perception. In “Ben” he sings, “They don’t see you as I do.” In “Can You Feel It,” he sings,
Can you see what’s going down? Open up your mind … ‘Cause, we’re all the same Yes, the blood inside my veins is inside of you
In “Another Part of Me” he asks, “Can’t you see / You’re just another part of me?” Repeatedly he tells us that prejudice against difference is simply a matter of perception, or rather a culturally produced misperception. Those prejudices aren’t real and natural – children aren’t born with them – they’re just part of our social “conditioning.” And I think we see him challenging this misperception most dramatically in the changing color of his skin. He proved in a way that cannot be denied that, regardless of race, we are all connected. We are all gloriously different, unique individuals, but we are all one people. As he says, “Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.”
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful observation, and I agree completely. I think the message of “Ben” was obviously very important to him. As you pointed out, he would return to this message, in various forms, many times all throughout his career. It might even be fair to say that the message of this song helped to shape the man he became – the songs he wrote about unity and acceptance, the humanitarian causes he chose to support, the humble, loving way he lived his life. I think “Ben” probably had a very profound effect on him.
Willa: You know, that’s interesting because I’ve wondered about that a lot – about what exactly “Ben” meant to him – and I think you’re right. I think “Ben” probably did have a profound effect on him, or maybe it gave him a way to express something he already felt. I know he felt a lot of sympathy for Ben – you can tell that simply by listening to his voice as he sings the lyrics – but I wonder if he identified with him as well. After all, Ben isn’t accepted simply because he’s seen as different, and that’s something Michael Jackson struggled with too. Even as they idolized him, people still treated him as uncomfortably different.
In a 1980 interview with 20/20, his mother tells reporter Sylvia Chase,
“Wherever he goes, everybody’s coming out to see Michael Jackson – you know, want to look at him and see what he looks like – and he said he feels like an animal in a cage.”
When Sylvia Chase asks him about this, he says, “I do, all the time. Well, I shouldn’t say all the time, but I get embarrassed easily. … Being around, you know, everyday people and stuff, I feel strange. I do.” She follows up by saying, “There are some people who believe that, having always been on stage, you’ve never had to deal with the real world.” He replies,
“That’s true in a lot of ways. That’s true in one way. But it’s hard to in my position. I try to sometimes, but people won’t deal with me in that way because they see me differently. They won’t talk to me like they will a next-door neighbor.”
So as he says, people don’t interact with him in a casual, typical way “because they see me differently.” And if he felt that way in 1980 – before Thriller, before vitiligo, before the 1993 allegations and the 2005 trial and the screaming headlines about Wacko Jacko – imagine how he felt later on.
Joie: You’re absolutely right; his isolation only grew as his fame grew. I’m certain that he probably did feel very much ‘like an animal in a cage.’
Willa: Oh, it’s just unimaginable what he had to endure. And there’s another connection between Ben and Michael Jackson that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now but still haven’t reached any firm conclusions about, and that’s the reasons why they were seen as so strange. And while I’m still trying to figure this out, I think a lot of it has to do with cultural taboos against crossing certain boundaries.
Think about it – why are rats so abhorrent to so many people? I think it’s because they cross boundaries, or rather live in that weird in-between place where two distinct categories overlap. After all, when we think about rats, we don’t generally think about them living in the woods or in meadows or along streams. Instead, we think of them living in sewer pipes and garbage dumps and the basements of tenement buildings or dilapidated houses. In other words, we think of them living at the margins of civilization in places that are neither completely wild nor completely civilized. They exist in this weird no man’s land that blurs the boundary between what’s wild and what’s civilized. We tend to want to keep those ideals distinct and separate, but rats blur the boundary and threaten our notions of both civilization and wilderness – and it’s that threat that makes them abhorrent.
And in many ways, Michael Jackson did the same thing. He lived in that no man’s land between Black and White, masculine and feminine, gay and straight, upper class and lower class, liberal and conservative, child and adult, Christian and Jewish and Islamic and Buddhist, soul and blues and disco and rock, singer and dancer and filmmaker and philosopher. He challenged so many artificial, culturally constructed boundaries. And he didn’t just cross those boundaries. He lived in the in-between space where those categories uncomfortably overlap, and demonstrated that those boundaries are artificial constructs. And that was very threatening to a lot of people, especially those who want to keep those categories clearly defined and separate.
Joie: Ok, Willa. That was yet another ‘Wow’ moment for me! You have just connected the dots and drawn all the parallels between Michael Jackson and the subject of the song “Ben,” and it makes total, perfect sense. And you’re right; people are typically freaked out by rats and it is because we tend to think of them as living on the fringe of society. But rats are actually really cool. Most people are usually very stunned to learn that rats make really good pets. In fact, rats make better pets than mice because they don’t tend to bite like mice will. They are very intelligent, social animals that can be easily tamed and most owners compare the companionship to that of a dog!
So, next week, we will continue this discussion of what Willa calls ‘the trilogy’ with a look at the Thriller short film. And, I have to say, Willa, I’m still not seeing how “Ben” relates to the Thriller and Ghosts short films for you. Maybe I can see the Ghosts video somewhat, as that one really is all about being different. But I guess I just don’t think of the Thriller video in those terms at all. Yes, Michael Jackson’s character in that one is constantly changing from a teenage boy to a werewolf to a zombie and back again but, I just don’t think of this video as being about our “differences.” But, we’ll discuss that next week.
Joie: Willa, last week we talked about the Ghosts short film and that got me thinking about the dance sequence in that video. You know, for so many years, Michael’s name has been synonymous with dance, and he has long been recognized as one of the greatest dancers of our time. I believe we would have to search long and hard to find someone – anyone – who would take issue with that statement. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be fans seem to have no trouble admitting that. In fact, he was the first figure from the world of rock and roll to be inducted into the prestigious National Dance Hall of Fame in 2010.
Willa: Really? How do you know all this, Joie? You’re just amazing. But no, I didn’t know about that. That is impressive.
Joie: Yeah, it is really impressive. Especially since the honor is usually reserved for classically trained dancers from the world of ballet and modern dance. The list of inductees includes names like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska as well as Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
I think one of the reasons so many people acknowledge his dance talent is because he always used his short films to showcase that amazing ability, and I really love the big dance sequence in the Ghosts short film. Even though it’s the storyline and the dialogue that really drive this video, the dance sequence, to me, is really just as important. From the very beginning where he introduces the invading villagers to his “family” of ghosts, to the very menacing charge against the Mayor, to the almost angelic conclusion where the ghosts float from the ceiling in reverence. I think it’s one of the most complex dance sequences we’ve ever seen in a Michael Jackson video and I love how he used the background music to sort of shift the mood of the dance throughout – from lighthearted circus-feel entertainment, to very threatening, to almost ethereal. It’s just so much fun to sit and watch; I love to pop in this video and really immerse myself in it.
Willa: Oh, I agree! The dance sequences are fascinating and you’re right – they really propel us through a wide range of emotions. I wish I knew more about dance so I could be more aware of what’s happening and have a better understanding of what he’s doing and why. He had three choreographers, including Travis Payne, working with him and the other dancers on this movie, but the credits say, “All Dance Sequences Conceived and Staged by Michael Jackson.” And you can definitely feel his guiding vision in these dance sequences – they embody through physical movement some of the central themes of the film. And that first dance, with all those ghosts and ghouls dancing behind him, feels so different from any other dance sequence he ever did.
You know, he really liked to develop each dance so that it precisely fit what he was trying to convey in that particular piece. In a 1999 MTV interview, he described how he and Michael Peters choreographed the big dance sequence with the zombies in Thriller:
“It was a delicate thing to work on,” he says, because zombies move in such a stiff, unnatural way – they clomp around on their undead legs and can scarcely walk. As he says, “I remember my original approach was, How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” He approached that problem by imaginatively putting himself in the body of a zombie and working through it that way. As he says, “I got in the room with Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move.”
And they solved the problem brilliantly. When you watch the big dance sequence in Thriller, it feels so right you don’t even think about how difficult it must have been to choreograph a dance for undead legs. He and the other zombies really move, so it’s fun to watch, but there are some distinctive gestures that vividly convey the idea that these are rigid, corpse-like bodies.
Joie: And, you know, it’s not something that most people would think about. But asking the question, “how do you make zombies dance without it being comical,” is really what made him such a brilliant talent – that attention to detail is incredible. He approached everything he did with that same obsessive attention to detail. It’s really astounding to think about! I just love when he says that he would even go so far as to show up for rehearsals with Michael Peters wearing monster makeup in order to get into character, to make it easier to envision just how these undead creatures would move and dance. That dedication to detail is key.
Willa: I agree. I think it’s subtle details like that, along with the ability to imaginatively put yourself in the emotional and physical space of your character, that sets apart great dancers, great actors, great artists. I remember reading an article one time about Baryshnikov when he was very young. He was dancing the role of a toy, I think it was, who comes to life, but he was acting listless on stage. His instructor stopped the music and asked if there was something wrong, and he said no, he just hadn’t come to life yet. I love that! He was dragging around on stage because he was completely immersed in that role and imagining what it would be like to inhabit a wooden mechanical body and not yet have a living body. How would your arms and legs move if they weren’t alive yet?
Michael Jackson had that same imaginative capacity to genuinely inhabit a character and move in a way that suggested he really was a zombie or a gangster or a mayor forced to dance against his will. He describes dancing as the Mayor in “The Making of Ghosts,” about 6½ minutes in:
Joie: You know what I love about that clip, Willa, is the fact that, even though he is being interviewed about his new video, he stays completely in character because of all the makeup and conducts the interview as the Mayor – with the voice, the attitude and everything! So funny.
Willa: I love that too! And then he starts to jerk and move, and it really feels like something inside him is yanking his muscles and compelling him to dance. And then he really gets into it and starts to groove, but there’s still that resistance the Mayor has to the dance. It’s just amazing to hear him talk through what’s happening as he does it, and so fun to watch him pull it off.
I see something similar but a little more complicated happening in the big dance sequence in Ghosts. He’s creating a dance that’s appropriate for these characters – for ghosts and ghouls – but he’s also creating a dance that carries out an important thematic function by evoking the grotesque. He suggests the grotesque in many different ways throughout Ghosts: in the contortions of his face when he first confronts the villagers, in the laughing fool with his jingling three-pointed hat, in the irreverent ghouls who challenge the Mayor, in the upside-down dancing on the ceiling. And he also evokes it through the dance steps themselves. There’s lots of splayed legs, and these skittery spider-like jumps and sidewinder movements that we’ve never seen him do before.
Joie: You’re right, there are lots of really different, menacing, even almost sinister moves in this one. In Thriller, even though they were portraying dancing undead zombies, the feel of the dance was still sort of lighthearted, soft-horror. But in Ghosts, the entire dance sequence feels much darker and more frightening because of the unique choreography.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is kind of unsettling, isn’t it, just because it is so different from any dance I can think of. I don’t remember ever seeing a dancer move their body in quite that way before. And you know, while you see people from around the world doing so many distinctive Michael Jackson dance moves, you don’t see them doing those splayed-leg movements from Ghosts. I’ve never seen those moves outside this film, and maybe that’s also because they are so unnervingly different.
There is so much going on in this film, and in the dance sequences, and there are some subtle gestures that really jump out at me in interesting ways. For example, he begins the first dance sequence by calling up all these ghouls to dance with him and then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He uses that same gesture in Bad after calling up the imaginary gang members/artists to back him up in the big dance sequence there. And the Macaulay Culkin character does the same thing in the intro to Black or White, just before blasting the electric guitar so loud he sends his father flying back to Africa and the origins of music and dance.
That small gesture seems to carry the same meaning in all three cases. In all three, a rather powerless solitary figure is confronted with the threat of violence, and in all three he stands up to that threat and counters it with art: with music and dance. It’s almost like Michael Jackson is creating his own vocabulary of gesture, so when we see him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand in Ghosts, we feel the echoes of those prior films and kind of know what’s coming.
Joie: “His own vocabulary of gesture.” I like that!
Willa: You know what I mean, right? It’s just so fascinating to me what he’s doing – how he uses subtle gestures like that to signify a very specific concept, but in an unspoken way. He does something similar to begin the skeleton dance. As we were talking about last week, the villagers have very conflicted feelings about the Maestro – they aren’t sure if they can trust him or not – so he reflects that back at them by making himself unfamiliar, a skeleton, but then dances in a very fun, familiar way that draws them to him.
Interestingly, he begins the skeleton dance by jerking up his right shoulder – and that is exactly how he began the zombie dance in Thriller. And he’s dealing with a similar situation in both films. In Thriller, he’s addressing people’s very conflicted feelings about him as our first black teen idol. The United States was and is a racist country with oppressive taboos against inter-racial relationships – especially in the early 1980s when Thriller was made – and suddenly millions of teenage girls of all races were fainting at his concerts and affirming that he was sexually desirable. So he was really challenging those taboos, and a lot of people felt very unsettled about that. He responded to those conflicted emotions just as he does in Ghosts: he makes himself unfamiliar – a zombie – so he reflects those emotions back at us, but then dances in a way that’s unmistakably Michael Jackson and draws us in to him.
Joie: Ok, you have officially blown me away here! I never made that connection between the skeleton dance in Ghosts and the zombie dance in Thriller before. But you are right; he does begin both dances the exact same way, in order to remind us that he is still the same person. Wow!
Willa: Isn’t it fascinating? He just knocks me out, over and over again – he’s just breathtakingly brilliant. Every time I experience his work, I feel awed by it all over again.
Joie: Willa, that is a statement that I think so many of us can agree with. It never fails to astound me that, no matter how many times I listen to his music or watch one of his short films or watch a concert performance, I always discover something new that I had never heard or experienced before. It’s just amazing to me.
Willa: Oh, I know! And it’s so interesting to me how he conveyed meaning through so many different avenues simultaneously. For example, he conveys so much through that gesture of jerking up his right shoulder or wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and importantly, those gestures are nonverbal. I wonder if that’s one reason his work was so popular around the world – because even if you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you could still understand the central ideas because he was able to convey meaning in so many other ways.
And he didn’t just use gesture to convey concepts and emotions. He used them to convey personality details as well that brought his characters vividly to life. In a wonderful comment Nina posted a couple weeks ago, she describes how he was able to “sketch a character” through a few subtle gestures:
As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines – so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality – Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest … you can recognize the “character” at once.
Nina goes on to say,
he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean,” a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different [gangster] in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout. It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”
Nina’s descriptions of his “gestural economy” are so interesting, and I absolutely agree about his ability to “sketch a character … with just a few simple lines,” so the “essence” of that character comes to life for us. So in Ghosts, for example, he isn’t just performing the dance of a generic Mayor forced to move against his will. He’s performing as a Mayor with a distinctive personality and specific desires and biases and beliefs, including a desperate need to be in control at all times. And those individualizing characteristics are conveyed to us through simple gestures, such as that abrupt gesture with his hands when his body begins to move. He’s losing control of his legs and then his hips as his body begins to dance, but he’s trying to reassure the villagers that he’s still in control – of the situation, of the Maestro, of them, of his own body.
Joie: Willa, I love the comment you used from Nina. I agree with what she says about the “elements being rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each number.” This is really true and we can see this in various performances throughout his career. One of my absolute favorites is the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance. His entire opening number is incredible. He performs a medley of “Don’t Stop,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” and “Billie Jean,” with a little help from his friend, Slash.
But it’s the full-length rendition of “Dangerous” that really makes this performance something special. He’s not even singing live here but, you quickly forgive and forget about it because the dance is so spectacular! Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. The way he moves is just so totally beyond anyone else; it’s like he’s made of rubber. His body bends and twists and moves in ways that regular people’s just don’t. There have been, and I’m sure there will continue to be, many imitators but, the simple fact is that nobody else moves like that! Slash once made this observation:
“The thing about Michael is he’s hands down one of the most professional, most talented performers I have ever worked with. All the brouhaha aside, when it comes down to it, you can have 60 choreographed dancers up there and you know which one Michael is.”
I just love this quote because Slash is absolutely right; you can always pick Michael out when he’s on stage with other singers and dancers. He just moves differently than anyone else. And I especially love that this quote came from Slash – someone you wouldn’t normally think would pay attention to the dancing, you know?
Willa: And what he says is absolutely true. When Michael Jackson is dancing with a group, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Even in the group dance in The Way You Make Me Feel when all you can see are silhouettes of the dancers, you know which one is him and you can’t help watching him.
And of course, he also received praise from professionals who do pay close attention to dancing – people like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Allen, and Michael Flatley, as Jacksonaktak noted in a comment a couple months ago. I love this quote she cited from Baryshnikov, saying,
What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “… his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’”
As soon as I read this, I could picture that “simple, bouncy walk” so well. I love that walk, and it’s so distinctively Michael Jackson. We see snippets of it throughout the MTV medley you love so much, Joie. He also performs it as the skeleton in Ghosts, and even as a skeleton, it is so distinctively him. It’s just so joyful and carefree, and as Baryshnikov says, it reflects “that superior confidence in his body as a dancer.”
Joie: Yeah, that is a great quote from Baryshnikov and, you’re right. He did receive a lot of praise from many in the dance community. From the highly acclaimed and regarded all the way to the neophyte just trying to catch a break – like all those young dancers at the beginning of the This Is It film. You know, during an interview on The Making of Thriller, Michael Peters talks about how Michael had never taken a formal dance lesson in his life and yet, there he was in the dance rehearsals with all of these classically trained dancers who had been studying dance for years, and he was not simply holding his own with them, but he was actually out-dancing them. “It’s just something you’re born with,” Peters said. “It’s just in him.”